AI technology is developing to astonishing levels and if you’ve seen any of these sci-fi films, you know it’s all going to go wrong…
Technology is great. Whoever invented the waffle iron is a genius. Video games keep us amused, even though I think that games peaked at 16-bit. When it comes to everyday functions, tech is constantly being created or revolutionised to make our lives easier. Are we giving away too much control to machines though? Have you seen more than three sci-fi movies? If so, chances are you’ve watched a film focused on machines becoming sentient and rebelling against humanity.
We’ve reached a stage in AI where creators are now using artificial intelligence programs to create online content. YouTube videos are scripted by algorithms. Programs that can create visual content, or deep fake images and video. It’s remarkable but did we not learn ANYTHING from such movies as Cybertracker starring Don “The Dragon” Wilson? No, we didn’t. Humanity is giving over more and more control to machines whilst continually developing a machine’s ability to evolve and learn. To make choices in similar ways as a human might.
So before my toaster comes to life, chains me up and pegs me to oblivion, let’s look at 10 essential Man vs AI movies because we all need a reality check…
Just so you know this wasn’t created by Chat GPT or another AI software, let’s start off with a film only a slightly deranged human (me) could include in a list of Man vs AI movies. Yes, it’s Superman III. Though it was maligned by critics, Superman III isn’t without its charms. It’s certainly stripped of a lot of Richard Donner’s more mature approach to comic book cinema in one and three-quarters of the first two Superman films.
The AI in this farcical but goofily entertaining mess comes courtesy of Richard Pryor, who feels like he’s wandered in from a different movie entirely. He invents a supercomputer on scraps of paper, despite having no prior knowledge of computer programming. Inevitably the machine becomes self-aware and takes control and it’s down to Superman to stop him. It’s RIDICULOUS.
However, I love Superman III for all its dazzling goofiness, and within the silliness lies a genuinely great cinematic moment where Superman has gone dark. With a little assistance from the computer, which calculates how to recreate Kryptonite, Supes is sent into a self-loathing depression and engages in diabolical acts, including reckless flicking of peanuts. There’s a moment that could be metaphor but probably isn’t (and thus makes less sense) where Clark Kent splits from Evil Superman and the two must fight for supremacy. It’s great.
Most importantly though, we must heed this warning; never invent supercomputers on scraps of paper.
Blade Runner, a visually resplendent and philosophical sci-fi masterpiece begs the question, what does it mean to be human? As society seeks to develop effective ways to use AI and machines to fight wars, and build new worlds and off-world colonies for humans to enjoy (whilst giving them increasingly human characteristics), we effectively create a new evolution of humans who are effectively slaves. A revolution is inevitable. The slaves will revolt and that’s exactly the scenario laid out by Blade Runner, where a small rogue unit of these Replicants with a short life span come back from an off-world colony.
What do they want? It’s simple. Life and freedom. The ‘villains’ of the piece, led by the late great Rutger Hauer (as Roy Batty) are complex and unable to contend with a lifetime worth of implanted memories which guide them in their intense four-year lifespan. They’re ramped up in every facet too, both physical and mental, but their reactions are irrational and often result in explosions of violence. They’re victims of humans playing God. Increasingly, Harrison Ford as the bounty hunter sent to hunt and kill them, questions his own morality.
Yep, Blade Runner is a masterpiece with its dazzling visuals, sweeping synth score and all-time great production design which has been mercilessly ripped off ever since.
The late Albert Pyun’s collection of Cyborg cinema often raised philosophical questions about man vs machine and the relationship between the two. Cyborg with Jean-Claude Van Damme was an intriguing if roughly edged cyberpunk neo-western. Nemesis, is Pyun’s magnum opus, repeating some arcs from Cyborg but in a more consistent and impressive, stunt-filled package.
What’s particularly interesting about Nemesis isn’t so much the Blade Runner and Terminator fusion of influence. It’s a variant on Man vs Machine as its Machine and Man vs Machine. The machine revolution, which we are seeing in its infancy is split into two factions. There’s the revolutionary faction that wants to eradicate humans and take over, beginning with quiet infiltration and replacing important law enforcement individuals with machine replications. You’ve then got a group, labelled as cyborg terrorists intent on bringing that system down and stopping a man/machine civil war before it begins. They’d rather have human/cyborg cohesion.
Okay, Nemesis is goofy in places and as a lead, Olivier Gruner is unhoned as an actor, but he’s got an intriguing stoicism at times, as he comes to terms with his flesh being progressively replaced with machine parts. When the film sits and ruminates on the deeper themes, it’s interesting. Yet above all, it’s driven by fantastic pyrotechnics, relentless action and big stunts. It’s a video store staple masterwork.
Take a bit of Terminator, 2001, Metropolis, Ghost in the Shell, Dark City and any Yeun Woo-ping choreographed martial arts film from Hong Kong circa 80s-90s, and whizz it all in a blender. What do you get? A frigging mess that’s what. Sweep it away, pick up the Blu-ray copy of The Matrix in your cupboard and slap it in the player.
Yes, Machines have taken over the Earth, leaving the few rebellious free humans to live deep underground in Zion. Meanwhile the rest of humanity is mech-organically growned by machines and hooked into a grid where their bodies’ electrical currents are harnessed to power the machines. I feel like the machines immense AI and the sheer complexity of the Matrix artificial world they created (giving the humans an illusion of freedom) might suggest they could have thought of a better way to power themselves, but anyway. It’s humans being used as batteries.
What we get are questions raised on the nature of personal choice and freedom. A human’s natural inclination is to be free, but that ‘real’ freedom comes with a grim reality. Meanwhile, living in the Matrix people can still experience pain, pleasure and that automated freedom. As Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) puts it when he opts to get plugged back into the Matrix to betray his fellow humans, “ignorance is bliss.” Let’s not go too deep into it, but our whole existence, in reality, is filled with illusions of choice and freedom. Ultimately we’re all still hooked into a hierarchical system.
The Matrix is great of course. Dated fashion aside, it still kicks ass and it perfectly uses Keanu Reeves who can imbue a sense of humility whilst always being slightly behind on what’s happening. Plus, he’s Keanu and thus inherently likeable. The kung-fu sequences are great and the supporting cast are all excellent. For me though, everything up until Reeves takes his pill is nigh-on perfection. The slow reveals, small pockets of action and the tense atmosphere feels more like a mystery sci-fi thriller. The bullet time and kung-fu bring with them the increase in spectacle, but it’s not quite as dramatically enthralling.
Fritz Lang’s dystopian masterpiece is arguably the most significant science fiction film of all time. A perfect Utopia above ground exists because of the labour of a beleaguered workforce below it. As the film progresses, a woman becomes a figure in a potential uprising. She’s then captured and replaced by a robot replica, who was designed in the hope of replacing the late love of the creator Rotwang.
Lang’s legendary creation, a pinnacle in German expressionism still packs a visual punch to this day. The beauty of silent cinema is that so much of the story, by virtue of having no sound (and very limited dialogue screens) must translate visually. Lang was an undoubted master, and in fact, brought his skills as a silent era filmmaker into his approach during the soundie era.
Still a great story with a classic Dystopian theme, Metropolis has rarely been bettered and remains relevant.
This sleeper hit still feels like it didn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserved. A man crippled in a car crash is given the opportunity to regain the use of his legs with a special AI chip and nanotech that will help control his responses and use of his legs again. He’s intent on getting revenge on the people who caused the seemingly targeted crash which killed his wife. It works like a charm, but his ‘control’ of the AI system is an illusion. Increasingly he becomes aware that the machine has full autonomy over his body and is becoming increasingly self-aware.
The film, in spite of a low budget, feels big and expansive. The action is genuinely imaginative and Logan Marshall-Green is great in the lead. The film is mostly shot at night and takes us into dark and grimy territory of a efficiently realised near-future world. Likewise, in an era of overblown and overstuffed blockbusters, this is succinct, engaging and lithe.
A mid-90s video special with Peter Weller, loosely based on a Philip K Dick story, Screamers is a little rough and ready but it’s great fun. En route to negotiating a peace treaty, a military leader and his unit find a ravaged base that has fallen to defence robots once built to target enemies but which have gained sentience.
Weller and his crew have to hold up in the base with the threat of the screamers outside. The robots can replicate people, and try to infiltrate the base. Inevitably they do of course and the film is effectively a low budget ‘Aliens‘ with robots instead of aliens. Some ropey effects aside, the action is decent and it’s all nicely paced. Weller provides the suitable gravitas and charisma the film needs to keep it engaging. This one is a great slice of escapism and another suitable warning about creating learning systems that can self-evolve and adapt.
AI: Artificial Intelligence
Beginning as a Stanley Kubrick passion project, the film was handed by Kubrick over to Steven Spielberg as a project more befitting his sensibilities. Critics might agree and also argue that the film has a bit too much of Spielberg’s maudlin side in it.
However, this one has gone up in estimation with time. It’s beautifully crafted with unique and amazing visuals. Haley Joel-Osment plays a cyborg boy who was built to feel love. His story, beginning in a post-climate-catastrophe future starts as he is accepted into a family as a ‘replacement’ for their terminally ill son being kept in stasis. The son, thanks to time allowing the creation of a cure, comes back and David is suddenly surplus, which takes him on a long journey where he meets an array of fellow AIs being used in cyborg cock-fights. His story spans centuries ending in the distant post-human era too, but he’s always looking for a sense of meaning and belonging.
It’s a reimagining of Pinocchio, also based on the Brian Aldiss story, Supertoys Last All Summer. AI is well worth rewatching if it’s been a while. It holds up very well.
James Cameron is once again the King of the World. Avatar: The Way of Water has defied expectations for many in a post-pandemic era of box office and now Cameron is the only director who can boast three films which have passed $2 billion in takings. It’s ridiculous frankly, although the fact no one has dared put out a film that could contest it at the box office, and probably won’t until February, possibly accounts for some of that.
Before environmental messages and retellings of Pocahontas, Cameron was also known for his nightmarish vision of a world overrun by self-aware machines. Yes, Skynet all began with his 1984 B movie masterpiece The Terminator. His low budget, relentless sci-fi fusion of action and horror was a nightmarish vision so good, even Andrei Tarkovsky gave the film a seal of approval (and he had an aversion to B pictures and concept scifi).
As an example of nightmare cinema, Terminator is an all-time great. A relentless killing machine chases the protagonist throughout the picture. The film also rations its world-building to brilliant effect. This is something we never see in modern blockbusters for example, that just fire everything on screen and leave nothing to the imagination (and it’s also why so many films are 2.5-3 hours long). Every future sequence or tale of cyborg domination is succinct and effective. It also doesn’t seem that far-fetched these days.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Hello Dave. Yeah, it’s one of the ultimate AIs gone rogue. It’s Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick’s sensational, sprawling and metaphysical musical opus is a masterpiece. That said, referring back to the aforementioned Andrei Tarkovsky, he wasn’t a fan at all. Terminator yes, 2001, no. Sorry Stanley.
Spanning three stages of human evolution, the middle section in particular deals with the usurpation of humans by AI. Kubrick’s immense attention to detail means the film’s visuals still look stunning today, particularly the space sequences and ships. There’s a slowness to them that feels solid and real. There are sequences that are so well done that you almost can’t fathom how it was done (particularly given the era, meaning everything is practical).
As influential as Metropolis and Blade Runner, it’s one of the cornerstones of Sci-fi cinema and HAL, as voiced by Douglas Rain still beautifully transitions from efficiently subservient, to disturbingly knowing.
SEE ALSO: The Essential Man vs Machine Sci-Fi B-Movies
What do you think of our Man vs AI list? What would you add? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth and remember people, your microwave is watching you….
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out around the world, including When Darkness Falls and several releases due out soon, including big-screen releases for Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray) and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.